Zeller GS, 27, dies in hospital
Zeller was found in his University apartment by Public Safety officers at about 6 a.m. Sunday, shortly after he attempted to take his own life. Brain damage due to oxygen deprivation left Zeller in a coma at University Medical Center at Princeton until the evening of Jan. 5, when he was removed from life support.
He left behind a 4,000-word suicide note, which began: “I have the urge to declare my sanity and justify my actions, but I assume I’ll never be able to convince anyone that this was the right decision.” In the note, Zeller described how repeated sexual abuse as a young child haunted him for the rest of his life, causing regular nightmares and limiting his ability to connect with others.
“This has affected every aspect of my life,” he wrote. “This darkness, which is the only way I can describe it, has followed me like a fog, but at times intensified and overwhelmed me.”
Zeller published the note on his personal website and e-mailed it to friends Sunday morning. Minutes later, first responders discovered him in his apartment.
According to his note, Zeller – who was from Middletown, Conn. – never discussed the incidents of his childhood with anyone, including professionals, because he felt unable to fully trust others. He had been seriously contemplating suicide for at least one year and began drafting the note last winter.
Friends and colleagues said they were shocked by the note’s contents.
“Even to us, his closest friends here, we didn’t know about 80 percent of what he wrote in the note or how he was feeling,” said Harlan Yu GS, one of Zeller’s roommates for the past two years. “I never had any hints living with him for a year and half that this was what he was experiencing on a daily basis. That’s why it was so shocking that he could have hid it so well ... Reading the note it was in his voice, but the things that he was saying is such a far cry from everything that we knew about him.”
In contrast to the troubled person portrayed in the note, those closest to him remembered Zeller as a brilliant programmer, talented chef, devoted Boston Red Sox fan and someone who put his friends first.
“One of the hardest parts for me to read in all that was the fact that he didn’t seem to see himself as being a good person. He just went out of his way so many times for me that there’s no way you could have faked what he was doing or who he was,” said Joe Calandrino GS, a close friend who worked with Zeller on a number of computer science projects. “He showed a level of caring that I don’t think I see out of most people. And I don’t know how he could have even achieved that.”
While at Princeton, Zeller conducted computer security research at the Center for Information Technology Policy under his adviser Ed Felten, a computer science and Wilson School professor and director of CITP.
During that time, Zeller completed several high-profile projects. He and Felten published research exposing serious security vulnerabilities of websites such as The New York Times, YouTube and ING Direct. Zeller also co-authored an influential paper arguing for increased government transparency online.
When asked to discuss Zeller’s work, however, colleagues focused on the dozens of smaller projects that he completed in the past few years, which ranged from the practical — such as Graph Your Inbox, a tool to analyze and visualize Gmail activity over time — to IsItChristmas.com, which reads “no” 364 days of the year.
“I think he was just one of the most creative people that I knew,” Yu said. “A lot of the software he did certainly touched millions of people. He was always coming up with ingenious ideas that would often be funny and practical and also useful to those around him.”
“He would come up with an idea and he would dedicate his next week just because he was so motivated and excited about building something that lots of people could use, that people would find useful,” he added.
Before coming to Princeton, Zeller had already established himself as a young star in computer programming.
As a sophomore at Trinity College, where he graduated with honors in computer science in 2006, Zeller created myTunes, a free program that allows music purchased from iTunes to be downloaded to other computers. It was downloaded more than 3 million times.
Other early work included the open-source blogging platform Zempt, which has since been integrated into the widely used Moveable Type blog software.
“Bill’s work really grew out of his basic approach to life and to his interactions with his friends and colleagues, which was to look for concrete things he could do that could help people,” said Felten, who is serving in a yearlong post in Washington as the Federal Trade Commission’s chief technologist and returned to campus after the incident. On Thursday, Felten published a post in tribute to Zeller on the CITP blog, Freedom to Tinker.
Felten also emphasized Zeller’s commitment to mentoring undergraduates.
“I might not be in computer science but for him. He definitely had a major impact on my life, and I know that he’s had a major impact on a lot of others,” said Jennifer King ’11, who became a close friend of Zeller’s after he advised her work at a campus summer research program. “He’s not someone that I will ever forget because he was so instrumental in directing my life here. He’s not going to disappear into oblivion, which I think is one of the most important signs of a great life.”
According to friends, once Zeller set a goal, he would not rest until he was finished. “Once he decided he wanted to do something, he was almost obsessive with his desire to complete that and see it through,” said Joal Mendonsa, Zeller’s sophomore-year roommate at Trinity. “He basically wrote [myTunes] in a month without really sleeping. He would decide to work out more and would work out every single day for the next seven months.”
In his note, Zeller wrote that intense computer coding allowed him to escape his troubled thoughts for brief periods.
“As a computer scientist, he was an implementer; he was a doer,” King said. “He had this unbelievable creativity that allowed him to come up with crazy ideas, but then he’d actually go and do the crazy ideas, which is something that a lot of people don’t necessarily [do]. Those two qualities aren’t necessarily found in the same person.”
He was also heavily involved in the Graduate Student Government and chaired its facilities committee. “GSG is just one place among many on campus where Bill had many friends and will be missed,” said Kevin Collins, GSG president.
Jeff Dwoskin GS ’10, who co-chaired the facilities committee with Zeller last year, said Zeller’s many contributions included creating a program that tracked University shuttles’ locations and noted whether they were on schedule, a project he completed in a day.
“That was kind of his style, just to do something and make it work in a timeframe that was unbelievable to anyone else. He always impressed us with his ideas and abilities, no matter what the task,” Dwoskin said.
Zeller set himself apart from fellow graduate students in the number of people he reached with his work. “Grad school is the kind of place where you do work that only a few people see or you develop an idea so you can write about it and get it published, but he went the extra step to get things to the public that people used, real tools that had many real users. That’s something that a lot of graduate students can’t say,” said Ari Feldman GS, who worked with Zeller at CITP.
Despite the positive impact Zeller had on his friends and those who used his programs, he wrote in his note that he chose to end his life to stop hurting those around him, as well as to end 23 years of pain caused by childhood sexual abuse.
“Maybe there’s nothing that could have been done,” said Joseph Hall, a postdoctoral researcher at CITP. “But I like to think in some parallel universe there’s a Bill Zeller out there who found a way to begin to heal himself. It’s a great loss for us.”
University spokeswoman Emily Aronson said that the loss of a community member “reminds us of the importance of being supportive of friends in crisis and making sure that the members of the community are aware of the resources available to them if they find they are in distress.”
Aronson said the University is offering counseling services to those affected by Zeller’s death. There are also many resources available to students who may find themselves in a crisis situation, she added.
Students can reach Counseling and Psychological Services at any time by calling 609-258-3139. They can also contact Public Safety or reach out to other trusted individuals such as residential college advisers, deans or faculty advisers. The University’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education office can be reached at 609-258-3310.
A memorial service open to members of the University community will be held at 2 p.m. on Jan. 15 at Prospect House. Information about a memorial fund set up in his honor was posted on the University website.
Friends are sharing memories of Zeller at 1000memories.com/billzeller.
Staff writer Henry Rome contributed reporting.
Editor’s Note: Zeller requested that his note be republished in full, rather than excerpted. It can be found on his personal website at documents.from.bz/note.txt.